“Philosophy is Learning How to Die”

“The Death of Socrates”
Jacques- Louis David, 1787

“Philosophy is Learning How to Die” 

Socrates said that about philosophy, in front of his grieving student/disciples, at the hour when he was to down the lethal hemlock served him by the jailer.  Death was the sentence passed on him by the jury that had found him guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens.  Since Socrates was a man of noble character, who had certainly opposed the corruption of the youth, the offense for which they were condemning him was probably a different one: being a philosopher.

Philosophy was at that time (399 B.C.E.) a fairly new calling, but Socrates embodied it as much as anyone has, before or since.  What did he mean by calling it a study of how to die?  Was he just trying to console his students — apprentices in philosophy — assuring them that he was departing for a land they already knew?

If, on the other hand, he was not just offering a soothing placebo,

what did he think philosophers knew?

A few years ago, one of my colleagues was cut down suddenly, in the prime of his life, by an illness the doctors could not cure.  At the memorial service, his widow shared a comment he had made to her:

“Nothing in philosophy

prepared me for this.”

Of course, Socrates had in mind a way of life, not an academic discipline.

Lately, the urge has come upon me to get rid of a lot of things no longer needed in the life I live now.  Up to a certain time, I’d always made a point of traveling light.  In New York, I lived in a one-room apartment where every piece of furniture was in use; the paintings on the wall were by me; the closets held clothes I actually wore and I knew where, on my bookshelves, I could find any book I needed.  My motto was:

If I have to leave suddenly,

whatever I own should fit in a backpack.

Of course it didn’t quite, but that was the model.

It broke down after my parents died.  Though I gave away whatever I could, there were paintings, books and some heavy pieces of furniture that ended up in my space.  When I met and married Jerry, and we moved to our own place, the purgations were considerable but they didn’t keep up with the stuff that moved with each of us.  It was perhaps too soon for us to know what was really ours.

Then, a few weeks ago, I noticed in meditation that I felt “like a stranger” in our home.  Was this a case of the alienation that contemporary philosophers write about?

Further guidance came in these words:

Get rid of the baggage!

People write deep books on alienation.  It’s all the rage.  Instead of writing a deep book, I decided to go through my closets.  The effects were sudden and, to me, quite odd.  It was as if

the outer is the inner

and the inner is the outer.

With each bulging bag going to Goodwill, I felt more at home!

If the Existentialists had purged their closets, would they have written so eloquently about Thrownness, Angst and Alienation?

At around the same time, I had another thought – just as inspired.  Pardon my mentioning it, but some readers may remember that I survived a year-long struggle to get a predator who targeted women out of an institution that held great value to me.  It was by no means easy to do, nor was it clear that I would eventually succeed (which, however, I did, with the help of God and a few others).

Such “victories” are immensely costly.  Every day for about a year, feelings of outrage, anger, frustration, hurt and violation were mixed with my digestive juices.  The natural consequence was that a digestion I used jokingly to describe as “the best thing about me” became … well … certainly NOT the best thing about me.

Recently I discovered a facility, about a 40-minute drive from where I live, where highly competent staff know how to take a garden hose (so to speak) to one’s pipes, starting at the other end. “Hydrotherapy” is the genteel name they give to their treatment.  As the dysfunctional intestines gradually return to normal, interestingly, the corresponding emotions are also returning to their normal place in the present tense, with fewer involuntary revisits to a year of past suffering.

What’s all this got to do with learning how to die — or with philosophy, for that matter?

Well, when you die, you let go (perforce) of powers you won’t be needing anymore.  That way, you can travel lighter to your next appointment.

Something analogous happens when you disburden yourself of baggage no longer functional — including wounds left from bygone combats.  You get more accessible – to yourself and life’s still-undiscovered countries.

And philosophy?  It requires a disciplined commitment to love the truth and seek it – even at the cost of surrendering favorite beliefs when you discover them to be false.  If you live that way, whatever the pains — sooner or later, inevitably and naturally, you notice yourself —

meeting the life-adventure afresh.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Philosophy is Learning How to Die”

  1. Romola Chrzanowski says:

    I will try to heed your advice and de-clutter a little bit. Thank you for this practical lesson in philosophy.

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Romula & many thanks for your Comment. Yes, the effects were a surprise to me. Sometimes getting “shallow” is deeper than being deep!

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